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January 30, 2014

Book Notes - Joe Nelms "The Last Time I Died"

The Last Time I Died

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Joe Nelms' debut novel The Last Time I Died is a dark, postmodern literary thriller.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Nelms has created a thrill ride in this fast-paced story focused on the conflict between the pain of repression and the pain of knowledge. Fans of the TV show Dexter, the film Memento, and the novels of DBC Pierre will appreciate the brutal honesty of Christian’s narration, spliced with flashbacks to happier times and occasional observations from an omniscient third party. One of the most compelling first novels in recent memory, The Last Time I Died is chilling, cinematic, and unapologetically brash, a heady mixture of all-consuming desire and mortality."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Joe Nelms' Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Last Time I Died:


The Last Time I Died is a story of heartache and memory that strips its main character, Christian Franco, bare to his shivering soul and asks how much one man can withstand in his pursuit of self-awareness.

Christian is depressed, broken to the point of attempting suicide. As he dies, his life flashes before his eyes. The odd thing is he doesn't recognize many of the memories from his childhood. They were repressed. Brought back to life in the emergency room, Christian awakes with decided purpose - he must know what else is hidden away in his memory. And the only way to access it is to kill himself again and again and again. With the help of some sketchy characters, he manages to walk the line between life and death over and over, only to find the truth is not at all what he expected.

The Last Time I Died is lean and moves fast in unpredictable (I hope) directions, ultimately resolving itself into a hopeful message or at least a satisfying release from unrelenting self-flagellation.

So, I thought the soundtrack should have the same arch. It begins mired in chaos and claws its way toward a scarred serenity by careening from the ear-crunching bass of Skrillex to Jeff Lynne's lonely cry for help to the impossibly soulful voice of Warren Haynes.


"Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites" by Skrillex

The story starts with Christian spinning wildly out of control. There's no build. We're right there with him as he jams what's left of his life into fifth and punches it, knowing nothing good can come of his actions. But that's his point. Drinking way too much, picking bar fights he can't possibly win, meandering through oncoming mid-town traffic as a misguided sacrifice no one asked for. He's a mess. Forty seconds in, "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" hits a matching stride, yanking you back and forth through a tangled brawl of foreboding bass and eerie keyboards that serve well as an overture for The Last Time I Died.

"Telephone Line" by Electric Light Orchestra

Christian finds solace in pain and spends his evenings on the hunt for someone brutish enough to accommodate him. Early in the story, he provokes a fight with a gentleman more than happy to help and then settles in to enjoy the beating. Christian explains to us that getting the shit kicked out of him allows him to focus, to think. A sort of meditation. His "me time." It's also when he considers the better parts of his failed marriage, sorry to have lost his wife, but grateful to have had those wonderful tiny moments that make relationships so meaningful. Jeff Lynne's voice in "Telephone Line" invariably strikes me as the perfect mix of lost love and thorough regret, begging for the one final chance to make things better, knowing full well it's over.

"Victory Is Mine" by Audrey Motaung

Whether he realizes it or not, Christian intends to kill himself as a means of ending his emotional suffering. He succeeds via a good old-fashioned beatdown at the hands of a few random meathead bros. As he fades off, amidst the haze of concerned medical hustle in the ER, I imagine him smiling through bloody teeth and finally allowing himself a brief sigh of relief. I'm done. It's over. Victory is mine. He's not a religious guy, but Christian would certainly appreciate the raw energy and muscular harmonies that addle this classic hymn to become a celebration his long-suffering soul's discharge.

"Too Close" by Alex Clare

When Christian dies, his pit stop before the afterlife is The White - an infinite expanse of zen nothingness where his memories suddenly appear as a massive tsunami of amorphous images rushing past him, leaving time for him to grab and examine only one from this jackpot of psychological opportunity. Too Close opens with an ominous drone and follows through with a gritty, surreal hook that mimics the rhythm of the memory storm. There's nothing and then there's an overwhelming everything.

"Counting Stars" by OneRepublic

Christian wakes up in the hospital after his first death, not just alive, but reinvigorated. Inspired, even. He rushes home to capture what he can of his precious recovered memories in sketch before they fade. Death gives Christian new life. Or as this song says, everything that kills me makes me feel alive.

"Zerospan" by Charred Walls of the Damned

Christian hooks up with Cordoba, an underground doctor who offers a more clinical, controlled, and predictable means of death and revival than his own crude attempts. As efficient as her process is, dying and coming back to life takes a tremendous toll on Christian's body. Cordoba provides him with homemade drug that facilitates recovery via a two day black-out filled with erratic, bizarre behavior. "Zerospan" is pure energy, driven by the superhuman drums of Richard Christy and is what I hear when I picture Christian in the throes of this vicious, zombie-like recovery. I imagine if I could somehow distill this song into a liquid and inject it into my own veins, I might re-energize myself on even my darkest days.

"Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys

Christian harbors an unhealthy obsession with his ex-wife. He calls and hangs up, visits at their old haunts, watches her from afar. Stalking. At one point he waits outside the apartment in which he thinks she's staying, watching the lights in the windows as he considers a conversation they once shared about "Good Vibrations." Taken at face value, the song is a sweet, if simple, pop vehicle about a boy attracted to a girl. But listen a little closer and it might be about a boy who believes a girl (who may or may not know him) is giving off 'vibrations' that he feels he has liberty to act on. Christian tries to make the case that he's the first version of the song. He is. But he also might be the second.

"Sugar, We're Going Down" by Fall Out Boy

We're going down, down in an earlier round
And Sugar, we're going down swinging
I'll be your number one with a bullet
A loaded God complex, cock it and pull it.

Oddly enough, as Christian spirals downward physically, he's taking more and more control of his life (and death). As much as he would like to think he's lost everything and is trapped in an inescapable downward spiral, he is still calling plenty of the shots, calculating and orchestrating his self-destruction. He's going down, but going out swinging via his loaded, if myopic, God complex. Yes, it's a bit literal, but I love the guitar lick and even without the see-and-say lyrics, the music is a nice visceral fit with the turning point at which Christian knows exactly what he needs to do to complete his ruinous puzzle.

"Torn" by Warren Haynes

Okay, this doesn't exist, but in my dream world Warren covers this song, guitar searing your heart and that voice of his making every word believable. Natalie Imbruglia's version is fun, Edna Swap's original is beautiful, but god, would Warren take this to a special place. I like that the song is a bit of a confession as well as an acceptance of a harsh reality. He's torn. It's too late. So be it. This is where Christian ends up after harvesting a small library of memories that are not at all what he expected. Torn.

"Not An Addict" by K's Choice

It is not a habit, it is cool, I feel alive
If you don't have it you're on the other side.

This song is a cry for help by way of denial. Christian's semi-estranged sister Ella watches helplessly as Christian hurts himself while refusing her advice and assistance. It's cool. He feels alive. And it's the truth. As bad as he looks and as quickly as he deteriorates, Christian never feels more vibrant than when he's edging closer to understanding his newly recovered memories.

"Soulshine" by Warren Haynes

"Soulshine" is the other song mentioned in the book and really is what the story is all about. Christian's behavior is a wide open wail from the bottom of his soul. For better or worse, the truest part of his self has been wounded and hidden for a long time. Ultimately, he's better off when he opens himself up and let's his soul shine. Easily my favorite of the Haynes oeuvre, Warren's heart wrenching performance of this song never fails to touch me and would play beautifully as the ending theme song of the story as Christian finally finds peace in the eternal sea of memories found in one final death. (Spoiler alert, redacted)


Joe Nelms and The Last Time I Died links:

the author's website

Byrne After Reading review
Kirkus review
Peninsula Clarion review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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